Are you guilty of “Crape Murder”, the dreaded horticultural sin that involves lopping off your beautiful Crape Myrtles fence post high and creating gnarly looking knuckles?  No need to raise hands, you know who you are!  Despite the cruelness of this act, all is not lost; there is still time to repent and change your ways!  The facts of the matter are, if you have made a habit of lopping the tops off your crapes, you are most definitely not alone, you probably thought you were doing the right thing, and it can be corrected.

Improper pruning of crape myrtles. Photo Courtesy – Beth Bolles.

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.) are one of the most beautiful trees Southerners have in their horticultural arsenal.  Unsurpassed in both form and flower, it is easy to see why Crape Myrtle is the most widely planted tree in the Southeastern United States.   A mature Crape Myrtle properly grown is a remarkable sight, sinewy limbs reaching high in a vase shape supporting lilac-like flowers that come in a rainbow of colors.  These qualities make it even more strange that homeowners and landscape professionals alike insist on butchering them every winter.

Before we move on to corrective procedures, let us examine a few of the reasons that crape murder is committed.  First, I think peer pressure has a lot to do with it.  When one sees every house on the street and all the business landscapes doing things a certain way, one tends to think that is the correct way. Second, there are folks who believe that pruning their crapes back each year creates a superior flower show.  In reality, this practice creates an overabundance of succulent, weak, whippy branches (with admittedly larger flowers) that tend to bend over and break after a summer wind or rainstorm and are more prone to pests and disease.  In addition, many homeowners over prune their crapes in this way because they planted a cultivar that grows too large for the site.  There are dozens of crape myrtle cultivars sold, be mindful to pick one with a mature size and shape that will fit with the scale of the site!

So, now that we know why crape murder is committed, let’s discuss how to remedy it once the atrocity has already occurred.

  • If the improper pruning has not been going on very long (a couple of years or less), it may be possible to correct over time without taking drastic measures. If this is the case, select two or three of the young “whippy” canes that are growing up and out and remove the rest.  Ideally, the canes you select will be growing away from the center of the plant and not back into the middle of the plant or straight up to facilitate proper branch spacing as the tree continues to grow.  The canes you select now will become primary branches in the years to come, so plan  and prune carefully.  Repeat for each main trunk that has been “murdered”.  You will have to keep watch on the cut areas, as they will attempt to regrow as suckers after pruning; simply remove these juvenile shoots until they stop emerging.

    Properly pruned crape myrtle. Photo courtesy – North Carolina Cooperative Extension

  • If the murder has been going on for more than a year or two, it likely cannot be corrected without a major rejuvenation of the plant. Though it will likely be painful for you emotionally and seemingly run counterintuitive to your instincts, the best method to rejuvenate a disfigured crape is to break out the chainsaw and cut the plant back to the ground!  This forces the plant to do one of two things; either grow an outrageous number of new shoots or die.  In most cases however, the crape myrtle’s tough constitution permits it to regrow from the stump.  The first growing season after performing this procedure, allow the shoots that sprout to grow and do not prune.  The winter following the first growing season, remove all except three to five strong, well-spaced shoots and allow these to become the new plant’s main trunks.  In all succeeding years, only prune to remove dead wood, crossing branches and branches growing toward the center of the plant.

If you have been guilty of crape murder, it is not too late to change your ways!  Follow these steps, get out and enjoy the cool weather, and get to correcting your mistakes while the plants are still dormant!  As always, if you have any questions about the topic of this article or any other horticultural topics, please contact your local Extension office and happy gardening!

Daniel J. Leonard